Friday, May 24, 2019

Ol’ Bess at the HHREC Institute.

Middle School student leaders at the HHREC Institute. (Credit: Steve Goldberg)

The fear and worry that transformed the American Jewish community when a gunman slaughtered 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue on a Shabbat morning a few weeks ago were profound. American Jews, in anguish over the event, started seeing themselves as part of a larger community, with the need not only to mourn together but to take care of one another.

With that in mind, the Holocaust & Human Rights Education Center (HHREC) in White Plains, NY presented its Fourth Annual Human Rights Institute for Middle School Student Leaders at New York Medical College in Valhalla, New York. Inviting more than 14 public and private middle schools throughout Westchester County to participate, almost 100 seventh grade students attended each of the three sessions. The timing was perfect for teaching students about caring for each other.

Millie Jasper, executive director, HHREC, explained that the program would further the mission of the HHREC by laying the foundation to encourage students to become “upstanders” rather than “bystanders.” The two main themes of the institute, “respecting the individual” and “how to be an upstander,” were established by the keynote speaker who addressed the importance of confronting prejudice and discrimination. Through activities and small group workshops facilitated by middle school teachers and high school juniors and seniors who have participated in the HHREC Human Rights Institute for High School Student Leaders, the two central themes were developed through activities and discussions.

An “upstander” is “someone who recognizes when something is wrong and acts to make it right. “When we stand up for what is right, and do our best to help support and protect someone who is being hurt, we are being socially responsible,” Jasper noted.

With a brief introduction of the keynote speaker by Julie Scallero, co-director of education, HHREC, side doors opened into the room and Ol’ Bess, an 18th century tavern slave, slowly ambled into the room. Dressed in typical slave garb, with a yellow apron atop her blue and beige dress, a white hat was balanced jauntily on her head. Shuffling into the center of the audience, Ol’ Bess looked from one student to the next. There wasn’t a sound in the room as the students were trying to figure out who this person was. Suddenly, Ol’ Bess erupted into a song, singing a gospel tune, getting louder and louder, electrifying the room. It was amazing to watch the students as they clapped and sang along with Ol’ Bess. Every eye and ear was focused on this “slave lady.” Everyone wanted to hear what she had to say.

Ol’ Bess spoke for about 45 minutes, talking about slavery and her family, in slave-language cadence, sobbing as she recalled the challenging life she led. She spoke about slaves being considered property. She spoke about human rights. She spoke about respecting one another and the need for all of us to look out for each other, since we’re all part of one big family. Ol’ Bess challenged the students to be proactive, to recognize and respect differences, to confront prejudice and discrimination. The effect was mesmerizing.

Ol’ Bess concluded her tale by slowly turning around, taking off her white hat, facing the audience with a wide grin on her face and, in perfect English, inviting the audience to meet the real Sheila Arnold, a professional actress and storyteller. Asking the audience for questions, students addressed Ol’ Bess, asking about her children and her experiences with her “master.” With a background steeped in history and as part of History’s Alive! Presentation series, Arnold continued to share her knowledge of American history.

Commenting on their experience at the institute, students provided their thoughts about what they had learned. One student said, “Two important things I learned were that people should always be kind and tolerant of others and that we should always take a stand against discrimination.” Another commented, “I learned that you should respect yourself and others, how to be an upstander, and everyone is unique in their own way...It [the Institute] helped me learn how to be an active leader.”

A participating teacher shared, “This is a powerful and much needed event for today’s youth. It provides students a platform to discuss and strategize ways to bring awareness to their schools on the topics discussed—Respecting the Individual and How to Be an Upstander. We have to continue to expose our students to difficult conversations.”

Charged with returning to their schools to share their experiences with their classmates, these student leaders were being trained to promote human rights and proactive behavior within their respective environments.

To learn more about the work of the HHREC, please  or call 914-696-0738.

By Yvette Finkelstein


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